- Outlander -What It Was Like Bringing Henri-Christian’s Birth To Screen, According To ‘Outlander’ Director Kate Cheeseman
Spoilers ahead for Outlander Season 6, Episode 2, "Allegiance."
Even after four pregnancies, the birth of Henri-Christian on Outlander showed that an expecting mother can never know what to expect. As Marsali lay in Claire's surgery worried she was dying, Fergus swooped in (after some encouragement from Roger) and assisted his wife during her difficult labor. Kate Cheeseman, who directed the first two episodes of Outlander Season 6, spoke to The Dipp about what it was like directing this intimate scene and introducing the world to Fergus and Marsali's newborn.
In a moment direct from Diana Gabaldon's sixth Outlander book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Fergus massages and suck on Marsali's nipples when she's in labor with their fourth child. It's a technique that Fergus learned when he was growing up in the Parisian brothel that's supposed to help labor move along. But beyond any medical impact that Fergus's actions may have, Cheeseman notes how she and actors César Domboy and Lauren Lyle worked with intimacy coordinator Vanessa Coffey on the character's intention.
"If you're doing basic dialogue, you would talk about the character's intentions," Cheeseman says. "And [Coffey] mentioned that as being important for any sex scene or any scene like that. It's: Why is the character doing this? What's in their intention? And what is this about?"
Despite their current marital woes with Fergus relying on alcohol to cope with his feelings of being inadequate after Marsali was attacked by the Browns, Cheeseman notes that Fergus and Marsali have a "very physical, loving sexual relationship" (even if they are the rare Outlander couple to never have had a love scene).
"The idea is that he loves her and he knows that this will help relax her," Cheeseman says. "By being intimate with her, he's showing how much he loves her and how important she is and trying to relax her, and it's sort of what he can give."
Season 6 was the first time Cheeseman directed for Outlander and it also marks the first time that the Starz show used an intimacy coordinator. Cheeseman credits Coffey for helping with the technical aspects of this scene — for instance, since Lauren Lyle wasn't really pregnant, they had to make her breasts appear larger. "We needed to make sure that all looked real," the director says. "[Coffey] helped oil the machine."
Another factor in depicting Marsali's labor was that the production team didn't want to imply that the difficulties were due to Henri-Christian being born with dwarfism. So Cheeseman says the writers' room reworked the scripts to focus on the emotional stressors that were impacting her delivery.
"Because Marsali is so stressed, she's got a bit of preeclampsia, which is why her ankles are swelled up. And it's all about because she'd been worried when she was attacked with the Browns that the baby was injured," the director says. "And because, as well, Fergus is now drinking a lot, she's just got very stressed, so she's scared of having this baby. And I think he knows her so well, he knows that."
Cheeseman, who has directed episodes of Call the Midwife, jokes that she'd be fine never filming a delivery scene again. "I saw that there was a birth, I was almost going, 'Oh, no, please, not another birth,'" Cheeseman says. "They are really tricky things to film." But she says her experience on the long-running PBS series helped her with Marsali's labor in "Allegiance." Yet, unlike Call the Midwife, where production uses real infants and has an actual midwife on set, Outlander didn't show the baby during the delivery scene.
Cheeseman says there were two reasons for that. Because they filmed these scenes earlier on in the COVID-19 pandemic, production was cautious about having small children on set. "We were very worried because, at that time, they weren't sure how serious it was for babies and young children," Cheeseman says. "That's why there aren't very many children in those two episodes."
For Marsali's delivery, Cheeseman had to film any shots of the baby separately. "That made it even more difficult with the labor," Cheeseman admits. "Afterwards, we did all the shots where you're looking at the baby ... I went back up to Scotland and second unit and filmed the cut-aways." Rather than casting an infant with dwarfism, they used post-production techniques to alter the baby's appearance.
Besides the technical difficulties, Cheeseman says there was a narrative reason that Henri-Christian wasn't shown until later.
"I think what was important for that scene was you don't want to give away the baby at first. So it's all on Claire sees the baby, and you can see something in her look that goes, 'This isn't quite right.' And you can see Malva reacting, as well," Cheeseman says.
"But she doesn't want to be negative for Fergus, so she keeps that [to] herself and then hands it to him," she says of Claire. "And at this point, Marsali's not seen the baby. So we wanted to keep that as a moment when you suddenly reveal what all these looks are."
"And then that lovely scene where I think Lauren played it so well when she just accepts the baby and thinks he's beautiful," Cheeseman says. Adding that Lyle and Domboy "were both brilliant in that scene."
"Marsali still loves him, but Fergus can't cope with it," Cheeseman says.
Although Cheeseman handed over the reins after her two-episode block was finished, Season 6 will continue to explore Fergus and Marsali's struggling marriage now that their son is here. And as for Cheeseman's future directing projects? "I'm going to run if I ever have to film another birth."